Parents in N.J. Rally To Save Schechter School

By Rebecca Spence

Published May 11, 2007, issue of May 11, 2007.
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In an 11th-hour decision following an emotional plea from parents and students, the board of the New York City area’s only Conservative Jewish high school voted to keep the financially strapped institution’s doors open for the near future.

A Monday evening board meeting to decide the fate of the Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck, N.J., which has been saddled with ongoing operating losses reaching into the millions, ended with a unanimous vote allowing the school to remain intact if it can meet a key enrollment benchmark by the end of this week and reach a significant fundraising goal by the fall. The board credited its decision not to close the school to the impassioned appeals of a lineup of devoted — and sometimes teary eyed — parents and students who showed up at the Teaneck Jewish Center to plead with the school’s trustees to save Metro Schechter from collapse.

While the school will remain open — for now, at least — the extent of the financial crunch felt by Metro Schechter opens a window, some critics say, onto the weakened state of Conservative Judaism. Once America’s most populous Jewish stream, it has been overtaken in recent years by the explosive growth of the Reform movement.

At Monday night’s hearing before the board, a raft of parents pinned the blame for the school’s near demise on Conservative Judaism’s institutions, including the movement’s flagship, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which at one time housed the now-defunct Manhattan Schechter high school. Angry parents also indicted other forces, including the Jewish charitable federations and private philanthropists who rebuffed the board’s earlier appeals for donations.

“Where are our Conservative movement leaders? Where is JTS? Where is the UJA?” one indignant parent, Harold Steinbach, demanded to know. “Let’s keep MSHS open and vital, or let’s just pronounce non-Orthodox day school education dead,” he said, to rousing applause.

Some parents expressed outrage that the board kept them in the dark about the dire nature of the school’s financial situation until the past several weeks. Larry Yudelson, the father of both a senior and a sophomore at Metro Schechter, said in a phone interview that had parents known the depth of the crisis, many would have contributed funds a long time ago. “Eighteen months ago they could have easily mobilized resources,” he said, adding “it was a very paternalistic board. They were taking care of us.”

Another Metro Schechter parent, Steve Huberman, a former director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, stressed the importance of bringing in outside professional development advice and building partnerships with the community. But he also told of how, when he garnered the services of Mersky, Jaffe & Associates, a consulting firm for not-for-profit development, board members were largely unresponsive.

The firm’s assessment, Huberman said, showed that the resources to keep the school running “absolutely” existed within the community, and that all that was needed was “the right ask.”

The 140-student high school, which last year merged with Manhattan’s Schechter school in an effort to keep both institutions alive, has suffered recently from low enrollment and meager tuition income resulting from a policy of generous financial aid. The vast majority of students, who come from New Jersey’s Bergen County as well as from New York City’s five boroughs, pay only $10,000- $11,000 in tuition, well below the cost of educating a child at the school, board members explained at Monday night’s meeting.

The merger, which was hastily enacted, has proved rocky, delaying the start of the 2006 school year and scaring away new students for the upcoming academic year, school officials said. But the show of force from some 150 Schechter constituents, as well as from local Conservative rabbis who pledged their support, persuaded the 15-member board to give the community a chance to fight for its school.

“The Board of Trustees met this evening and overwhelmingly decided to move forward with plans to keep our beloved School open. We have made this decision based in large measure on the commitments that we heard tonight, including representations by the parents that they are financially and emotionally committed to the school,” the board of trustees said in an open letter to faculty, parents, students and community members. The letter concluded, “We look forward to the school continuing and prospering for many years to come, but that can only happen if your faith and commitment remains at the level that it was at tonight.”

Trustees, the letter stated, anticipate a shortfall of $1.5 million in funding for the upcoming year. In order to stay afloat, the board determined, Metro Schechter must enroll a minimum of 70 students by Friday, May 11, including a class of at least 10 ninth graders. Moreover, parents and local rabbis must raise $500,000 by September 1. The board members themselves, who have thus far kept the school going through their personal contributions, committed to giving an additional $1 million to close the gap.

Putting the finger-pointing behind them, students, parents and local rabbis now appear united in their efforts to meet the board’s goals. Most said that they were, in fact, reachable.

“The conditions the board set are reasonable,” said Kenneth Berger, rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck. “If the school is going to make it, we need to do at least that in terms of enrollment,” he said, referring to the minimum requirement of 70 students that was laid out by the trustees.

A co-head of the school, Rhonda Rosenheck, expressed optimism that Metro Schechter will indeed be able to meet its marks and survive well into the future. “It’s the kind of turning point for an institution that’s really remarkable,” she said.

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